Why Women Fail To Speak Up At High-Level Meetings, And What Everyone Can Do About It

New research finds female executives feel less effective in meetings, and a trio of female leadership consultants set out to discover why.

Why Women Fail To Speak Up At High-Level Meetings, And What Everyone Can Do About It
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Have you ever been in a meeting and wanted to speak up, but didn’t? Perhaps it wasn’t the right time. Maybe you couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and afterwards, you were disappointed, frustrated, or both.


If so, you’re not alone, say Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt, partners at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm, and authors of Break Your Own Rules: How to Change Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power. They penned the article, “Women, Find Your Voice” in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review.

In 2012, Heath, Flynn, and Holt reviewed 7,000 surveys and 360-degree feedback evaluations for 1,100 female executives at the vice-president level or higher, surveyed 270 female managers of Fortune 500 companies, and interviewed 65 top executives (both male and female) from companies like JPMorgan Chase, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Lowe’s, Time Warner, and eBay.

What they found was that more than half of the Fortune 500 executives reported that meetings were a “significant issue or a ‘work in progress,’” and, while men and women seemed to agree on the problems, they often disagreed on the causes.

While men said their female colleagues weren’t loud enough, allowed others to interrupt them, apologized often, and failed to back up their opinions with evidence, women reported they felt outnumbered and have difficulty reading the room, were uncomfortable with conflict, and any trouble articulating their views was due to timing rather than emotions. For example, some women expressed reluctance to voice an alternate opinion because they felt the decision had effectively been made.

So, what can women do to be more effective in meetings, and what can companies do to better support them? Here’s what the authors suggest:


1. Participate in pre-meetings.

The authors note that while female executives are very efficient, getting to meetings on time and adjourning promptly to handle other pending issues, men tend to arrive at meetings early and linger afterward, spending time connecting with colleagues.

“Women could go a long way toward addressing the problem of timing and their feelings of isolation if they sounded out colleagues and built allies in this way,” the authors note. Much of the work takes place at the meetings before the meeting and clarifies the purpose of the meeting, which isn’t always clear from the agenda, the trio says. For example, will a decision be made? Will they confirm a consensus? Knowing the purpose going into the meeting makes it easier to participate.

2. Prepare to speak spontaneously.

Women generally prefer pitching during presentations, as opposed to spontaneously, as men prefer to communicate, the authors found. While they acknowledge their advice is counterintuitive, the authors recommend coming to the meeting armed with key discussion points.

“You need to have written down some things you want to talk about,” says Lynne Ford, executive vice president of Calvert Investments, a Bethesda, Maryland-based investment management firm. “Even some of the casual, off-the-cuff remarks you hear have been rehearsed. If it sounds good, it was probably prepared,” Ford says.

3. Pay attention to delivery.

When it comes to expressing passion for something, there’s definitely a double standard, the authors note. While women may feel passionate about an idea, men interpret that expression as emotion. Therefore, it’s not so much what women say as how they say it, the authors write. That’s why it’s important for women to maintain an even tone, avoiding sarcasm or curt replies.


The authors also suggest women use “muscular” words – active, authoritative statements – when voicing their opinions, owning their opinions (as opposed to hedging), and building on their colleagues’ ideas. For example, instead of saying, “Well, what if…,” try saying, “I strongly suggest…” or instead of, “I tend to agree…,” try, “That is absolutely right, and here’s why…”

4. Let it go.

Debate is healthy, and conversations can become intense, the authors say. Don’t take confrontation personally. While women tend to ruminate, men go out for a beer after and put the matter behind them.

It’s not just women who need to speak up, the authors write. Companies and leaders need to step up, too. A number or survey respondents reported they didn’t receive direct feedback about their meeting behavior. If leaders observe women not speaking up, say something to them, rather than about them, the authors suggest. Include more women in meetings. And, male colleagues, ask women questions to include them in the conversation.

Hat tip: Harvard Business Review

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.